Friday Flashback #296

ILM use SOFTIMAGE|XSI to score Quidditch points

ILM use SOFTIMAGE|XSI to score Quidditchpoints in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”  With a library of mocap and the XSI animation mixer, these animation legends were able to blend individual moves together into one seamless, broom-flying heart-racing, Quidditchgame.

by Michael Abraham

It’s extremely rare that the second installment in a series surpasses its predecessor. In the case of last year’s wildly successful and fantastically fun Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the pressure was definitely on for this year’s follow-up, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, to blow the roof off a theater near you. Such pressure, as we moviegoers know so well, often leads to the very worst kinds of cinematic disaster.

So it was with profound pleasure, then, that I watched the Chamber of Secrets when it opened last November. Not only did it exceed its predecessor in virtually every area, but the visual effects were more spectacular, exciting and, yes, frightening than any other film I’ve seen. In short, the film was an absolute blast, and for that we can thank, yet again, the extraordinary work of legendary effects facility Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), who have been stunning moviegoers for more than 28 years.

So, while Harry Potter has Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) behind him, ILM has SOFTIMAGE|XSI and SOFTIMAGE|3D on their side.

Anyone for Quidditch?

To create the pulse racing Quidditch match scenes in Chamber of Secrets, for example, Lead Animator Paul Kavanagh and the visual effects team at ILM relied on the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer to mix digital doubles of the actors with a generic library of Quidditch moves.

“For the second film, we wanted to add an element of motion capture to the Quidditch match,” says Kavanagh. “We built a complete rig with a broom, and then had a rider in full mocap gear sit on it as stagehands moved it around. By doing this, we were able to shoot a variety of different scenarios with the rider kicking, punching and that kind of thing. We gradually built up a library of highly realistic Quidditch moves.”

Having a library of moves was one thing, but Kavanagh quickly found himself yearning for a way to tie various moves together and blend them into one seamless action.

“We quickly realized that, if we wanted to blend the motion capture moves together, SOFTIMAGE|XSI was the only way to go,” says Kavanagh. “We took our SOFTIMAGE|3D scenes and imported them one at a time into SOFTIMAGE|XSI.”

Using the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Animation Mixer, the ILM team were then able to blend the individual moves together into one seamless, heart racing Quidditch play.

“SOFTIMAGE|XSI made it very easy to chop, cut and paste different pieces of motion and blend between them,” Kavanagh continues. “Once we had a shot that we liked, we were able to pare it down into a compound that was exportable as a SOFTIMAGE|3D anim file. The anim file would then be imported back into SOFTIMAGE|3D and onto one of our character models. The character would then follow the motion capture moves. We were using XSI to perform the animation we wanted, but, when it came time to export, it was only an anim file. There was no geometry or animation controllers involved in the export, just the animation data. It was fantastic, and I don’t think we could have done it any other way.”

ILM is now deploying version 3.0 of the SOFTIMAGE|XSI environment on Linux workstations and servers throughout its production pipeline. The story of Harry Potter and SOFTIMAGE, however, is far from over.

Please read on.

Leading by Example

Steve Rawlins admits that he likes to lead by example:

“I love to be involved at the very beginning of a project, when the animation is just starting,” says the veteran animator from his desk at ILM in San Rafael. “An early start on a character gives you a nice ramping-up period and an ideal chance to define exactly who the character will be. If you can establish that early, it’s better for everyone, I think. Otherwise, things can get kind of confusing.”

Rawlins should know. As he embarks on his eighth interesting year at Lucas Digital’slegendary effects company, the Lead Animator on such films as Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) has played an early role in some seriously large projects. After an initial eighteen months in ILM’s now-closed Commercial Production division, Rawlins moved straight into animating the return of the infamous Jabba the Hutt for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). Following work as Lead Animator on the title characters for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Rawlins assumed the same role on Episode II, helping to create Dexter, the bizarre, yet-entirely appropriate looking diner owner in the film.

“Listing them like that doesn’t make it sound like I’ve worked on much in the last seven years,” says Rawlins thoughtfully. “They were all long schedules and a lot of work, however. They were all great to work on.”

Not much? I beg to differ. For my money, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets alone might have taken Rawlins’ full ILM tenure to complete (much, much longer, of course, if I’d been working on it, but that’s why Steve’s at the best effects facility in the whole damn world, and I’m in Montreal writing stories about him – but I digress).

Just as he did with Dexter, Rawlins used SOFTIMAGE|3D v. 3.9 to define the animation, and, therefore, the screen character, of Dobby, a brand new character in the continuing Harry Potter story. Short, meek and troublemaking, Dobby is a “house elf,” an overwhelmingly obsequious goblin with a penchant for self-punishment. When he discovers a plot to harm Harry upon his return to school, Dobby, despite his instinctual loyalty to his nefarious masters, is determined to rescue Harry from his apparent fate. The methods Dobby uses to keep Harry from being hurt are as hilarious as they are destructive, as disastrous as they are well intentioned.

It was not long before animators Sue Campbell, Kevin Martell and Steve Aplin joined Rawlins to work on Dobby. By the end of the project, a total of fifteen animators, all working on SOFTIMAGE|3D, came together to bring Dobby completely to life.

“SOFTIMAGE|3D definitely enhanced the efficiency of this project,” says Rawlins with emphasis as he begins to explain why.

When Harry Met Dobby…

While Rawlins began his animation work in early January 2002, Dobby had been conceived and modeled in November and December 2001, just a few weeks following the opening of the inaugural Harry Potter film. Confident of the first film’s impending success, ILM had no time to lose.

Fortunately for Rawlins’ schedule, the first scene shot was Harry’s first meeting with Dobby.

“It worked out really well for me,” says Rawlins. “Because the scene in Harry’s bedroom was the first one shot, an edited version was available to us by the beginning of February. It included somewhere around 22 shots and, the finished voice track, everything except Dobby himself. That had the dual advantage of setting the stage for me but still allowing me the freedom to have Dobby move the way I wanted him to.”

Rawlins eased into the project, using SOFTIMAGE|3D to create a simple walk cycle for Dobby, “just to see how he was going to move.” From there, the team chose a single shot on which to test their proposed animations.

“We chose what turned out to be the third shot in the sequence for our reference,” says Rawlins. “Fittingly, it is the very shot where Dobby introduces himself to Harry. It was a great shot to start with, because it provides a good shot of his face, and I was then able to imbue his entire character with the sort of nervousness we wanted to convey. What was great was that Chris Columbus, the director, was able to see Dobby for the first time actually interacting with Harry in the movie. He was very positive.”

When Dobby Hits Dobby…

Once established and approved by Columbus, it was time to make Dobby behave like, well, Dobby. As the conflicted yet kind little being that he is, Dobby is given to feeling profoundly guilty even when he does the right thing. Attempting to assuage that guilt, Dobby spends a good deal of time hitting himself. Both funny and kind of sad, these scenes of self-punishment were some of the most challenging on the film:

“The decision was made early on that Dobby would be created using entirely keyframe animation,” says Rawlins. “It was the right decision, but there is always a tendency with keyframing to make the animation overly ‘cartoony’ in its look. Using SOFTIMAGE|3D, Kevin Martell did a fantastic job of striking a balance between Dobby’s otherworldly look and some sort of realism. When Dobby bashes himself in the head, it isn’t entirely funny. He doesn’t come across as enjoying the pain or just being goofy. It really is rather sad, I think, and the audience feels just a little bit badly for laughing at him.”

Powerful Combination

When asked if Martell’s accomplishment was aided by SOFTIMAGE|3D, Rawlins is quick to answer in the affirmative:

“When you draw with a pencil and paper, you never have to think about how they work,” he says matter-of-factly. “Because of that, you can focus entirely on your creativity. That’s the way it is with SOFTIMAGE|3D. The tools are all right there and extremely intuitive. You can just grab your model and get to work. You never have to spend time fighting to do something.”

“My favorite feature would have to be the dope sheet,” continues Rawlins thoughtfully. “It lets me play and record basic motions and then layer in different variations quickly and easily. Together with the curve editor, the dope sheet becomes a very powerful combination.”

Just like ILM, SOFTIMAGE and Harry Potter.end

Friday Flashback #216

Jumanji’s Amazing Animals (Computer Graphics World, 1 Jan 1996)
ILM used SOFTIMAGE|3D to animate a CG elephant walking step by step over a crushed car.

In one memorable shot in the stampede sequence, a CG elephant walks up and over a car, crunching the car underfoot. For this sequence, the ‘run cycles were abandoned in favor of hand animation.


Here’s the complete article (PDF, 7.4MB). The quality of photocopies back in 1996 was pretty bad.

Friday Flashback #188

Feb 2002 Customer story on how ILM used SOFTIMAGE|3D on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in particular the CG python seen at the beginning of the movie.

SOFTIMAGE|3D close up

HOCUS-FOCUS: ILM Brings Magic Touch to Harry Potter

Sonia Osorio


Glasses, bowl-cut hair, a British prep-school look – not exactly qualities of a hero with mass appeal, but Harry Potter has become just that: a literary and marketing phenomenon with children and adults alike. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the film adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s first novel in her series of best-selling adventures about a young wizard coming into his own. Directed by Chris Columbus, the film has steadily attracted fans since its opening. With a dominant theme like magic, visual effects experts from various facilities had to create some magic of their own to deliver the 600 CG-intensive shots required. Film production designer, Stuart Craig’s designs became the guidelines for all character creation. This included the skills of makeup artists, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and the animators at five London effects houses and three facilities in California, one of which was Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

While animatronic creatures were used in shots requiring limited movement, more complex character motion and close-up performances required intensive CG work. Columbus was insistent that the creatures be subtly convincing, regardless of the potential for some outlandish characters to pop into Harry Potter’s magical world. Case in point: the CG snake created for the scene at London’s Regent’s Park Zoo, where Harry visits the reptile house with his foster parents and obnoxious cousin Dursley. As Harry “bonds” with a python, the glass barrier separating the snake from visitors magically disappears and the python slithers out to interact directly with Harry.

For camera line-up and sleeping scenes, an animatronic snake was used, but creating a truly convincing performance required a fairly complex CG actor. “We do a lot of creature work at ILM based on a biped model,” states technical animator Paul Kavanagh. “But a snake is essentially a tube of vertebrae and muscle moving in all sorts of ways, and I had to animate that believably.”



The initial SOFTIMAGE®|3D model of the snake was composed of nine controllers down the creature’s length, which could be translated to affect its length and shape. But Kavanagh found the model slow to animate and it was difficult to obtain the full range of motion required. He therefore doubled the controllers to 18, but this turned out to be “twice the effort and twice the complexity – and I still wasn’t getting the full motion I wanted,” says Kavanagh. “The snake needed to be animated over objects and I couldn’t get that by moving boxes [controllers] around.”

It was decided to build an intermediate model in SOFTIMAGE|3D to drive the original controller-model, but the question of how a snake actually moves still lingered. Kavanagh explains: “One of our animators brought in her pet python for me to observe slithering around the hallways. So I took some video footage of that, got reference material from National Geographic, and determined that as a snake moves, its muscles and coils contract to push it along a path. To replicate that, I built a path in SOFTIMAGE|3D of where the snake needed to travel, then I could take the intermediate model and slide it along the path drawn in 3D space.”



Good idea, one problem: it looked just like a snake sliding along a pre-determined path. The path itself needed to be animated so that, as the snake moved, some coils would contract, others would expand and the path itself would follow this motion via controllers along the route, complete with a tail-whipping motion, to create a real-life slithering feeling.

ILM’s in-house Anim-Rep software enabled Kavanagh to take SOFTIMAGE|3D files with controllers in-place and apply them to completely different scenes in SOFTIMAGE|3D. The intermediate model of the snake slithering along the path could thus be “anim-repped” into the initial 18-controller model, enabling it to follow the path-animated model’s motion.

ILM’s deformation tools were then used to create highly realistic flesh movement. This method, first used to advantage on Jurassic Park III, distributes textures over musculature and bones for a more organic look instead of having CG textures stretching in localized areas. “Our rendering and compositing departments also did a wonderful job making it all work in the scene,” adds Kavanagh. “Chris Columbus couldn’t stop talking about the work; he really loved it.”

It’s always gratifying to satisfy the director, but what really keeps Kavanagh motivated? “Well, I was going to say the money, but that’s not the real reason. I went to see the movie with my wife and it was great watching the crowd’s reaction to the snake scene – they didn’t even notice it was an effect, which is what you want at the end of the day. That’s the true value of the job: to create something that works that well.”

(c) 2001 Industrial Light + Magic. Photo credit: Sean Casey
(c) 2001 Warner Bros. Photo credit: Industrial Light + Magic